carole lombard

Titan of the Twentieth Century

I had prepared another column to kick off my new blog, but learned that Shirley Temple had passed on last evening. The news hit me hard because every second I’ve been on the planet, I’ve been sharing it with Shirley Temple. Shirley Temple was a given, and now she’s not.

For anyone around my age (whatever that may be), Shirley Temple is half moppet and half cliché. My generation knows what an icon she was during the Depression. The generation behind mine is vaguely aware that once there was a child star named Shirley Temple. The generation after that hasn’t a clue what power the letters S-H-I-R-L-E-Y T-E-M-P-L-E wielded on a theater marquee from 1934 through 1938. This knee-high kid, around three-feet tall at her most popular, made tens of millions for 20th Century Fox and became the first personality, real or imagined, to have her likeness and adorable little self spun off into all manner of product, from the highly profitable Shirley Temple Doll to paper dolls to coloring books, magazines, writing tablets, record albums, and more. Whatever Shirley Temple was selling, people lined up to buy.

Then came this unwelcome thing called adolescence. As Shirley neared it, she started to grow and the cute factor reduced from a million to about, well, zero. I guess audiences experienced letdown that she dared be biological, and then betrayal that Fox continued to wardrobe this suddenly gangly 11 year old in little-girl dresses and force her to affect the time-tested pout and delivery. Boy, it must have been awkward for the masses, for Fox, and for Shirley and her mother, to spend years beating back the fame monster—and then to be dismissed by Fox and on the outside, hearing nothing but crickets.

Unexpectedly, puberty was kind to Shirley. Very kind. She re-emerged working for Selznick in 1944, and then made pictures here and there through the 1940s and became a hottie, which produced a new paradox: Wouldn’t any guy be a dirty old man for thinking the recent-moppet sexy?

With nothing left to prove in pictures and caught as she was in that purgatory of grown-up child star, she walked away from Hollywood at 21 and aspired to matrimony and motherhood. What a life she went on to live! In 1972 she experienced breast cancer and moved right past it, saying, “I have much more to accomplish before I am through.” She justified that pronouncement by becoming U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and then U.S. Chief of Protocol. She wrote her autobiography, Child Star, in 1988 and earned a SAG Life Achievement Award in 2006.

My own brush with Shirley Temple came in 1989 when I requested an autograph by mail. She was at that time akin to the Soup Nazi of autographs. If you followed certain protocol and sent a still photo and return envelope, you stood a reasonable chance to get something back. I did, and I did, a bold signature on a still of tiny moppet Shirley riding the shoulders of Carole Lombard. Shirley Temple Black read the signature, along with the year. When I first held it in my hands I could feel the weight of history, of greatness, but then I went back to taking Shirley Temple for granted, secure I guess in the knowledge she would always be around. After all, wasn’t she just a child star, so really, how old could she be? Well, old enough, I guess, because now she’s moved on, and we are left to reflect on a titan of the Twentieth Century. In fact, the littlest titan of all.